Singer Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Singer Surname Meaning

The surname Singer is more likely to have German or Jewish origins; or it can be an English surname.  In each case the root is occupational, a singer.

The Yiddish zinger is the name for a cantor in a synagogue. German names can be Saenger or Senger. Singer in English comes from the Old English singan, meaning “to sing,” and would describe a professional singer, perhaps someone who toured with a travelling theater.  Singer or Sanger here would be male.  The female equivalent is Sangster.

Singer Surname Resources on The Internet

Singer Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England, Scotland (Aberdeenshire), Germany (Bavaria) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and Canada

Singer is a name mainly to be found in Bavaria and Austria today. The numbers here are around 15,000. Immigrant data for America in the 19th century showed that 75% of the Singers came from Germanic lands. But the Yiddish diaspora at that time stretched into Poland and Russia, which is where, for instance, the writer I.B. Singer came from.

England.  The Singer name in England is mainly to be found in the southwest of the country, in Somerset and stretching into Wiltshire (where the spelling can be Sanger).

There were many Singers in Frome.  John Webb Singer was born there and that was where he established his brass foundry in 1851.  He made brass ornaments for local churches and became better known as the Oxford Movement led to an increasing demand for these ornaments. George Singer, the bicycle and automobile pioneer, was born not too far away in Stinsford, Dorset.  His history was recounted in Kevin Atkinson’s 2008 book The Singer Story.

Jewish.  In 1837 Julius Singer arrived in London from Hungary and traded as a clothier.  His son Simeon became a leader of the Jewish community in England in the later 19th century and author of the widely-used Authorized Daily Prayer Book; while Simeon’s son Charles was a prominent British historian of science and technology.

Scotland.  Another concentration of the Singer name in the UK was to be found in Aberdeen.  The name here might have originally been Sengoir, with these Singers having been Huguenot refugees who had settled in Aberdeen as well as in county Down in Ireland.  Adam Singer dates from about 1700 in Aberdeen.

America.  Richard Sanger came from Wiltshire on the Confidence to New England in 1638 and settled in Watertown.  His descendants remained there or in neighboring Sherborn for the next two hundred years.

German Singers entered mainly via Pennsylvania in the 18th century.  The first mention appears to have been a Richard Sanger, a Philadelphia merchant, who died there in 1726.  Many were to be found in Lancaster county.  Michael Singer arrived in 1750 and settled after the Revolutionary War in Lebanon county.  Christian Singer, born in Germantown there in 1777, became an early settler in Jackson township, Monroe county.

The Singer name started to appear in upstate New York records in the 1760’s.   John Singer was recorded in Pownal in what is now Vermont in 1765.  A later John Singer from Pownal was orphaned during the Revolutionary War as a young boy and ended up in a refugee camp in Canada.  As an adult he successfully petitioned for land in Clinton township in the Niagara region.  He and his wife Susannah raised eleven children there.

Adam Singer came to Rensselaer county in New York in 1803, having changed his name from Reisinger after leaving his home in Heidelberg, Germany. 

His son Isaac Singer, born in 1811, ran away from home at the age of twelve.  He was always an experimenter and turned his hand in later life to sewing machines. While others had patented sewing machines before him, his sewing machine – which he brought to the market in 1851 – achieved more success than the others as it was more practical, more adaptable to home use, and could be bought on hire-purchase.

Isaac Singer was on his way to fame and fortune. He was to have fives “wives” and twenty two children. Edgar Collins Singer, one of the investors behind the torpedo ship Hunley that sunk in Charleston harbor in 1864, is believed to have been his nephew. The Singer Company continued until 2000.

Jewish.  Later came Jewish immigrants from the Yiddish diaspora, prominent among them being:

  • Isidore Singer, born in Moravia (in the present Czech Republic), who arrived in New York in 1895 where he raised money for the Jewish Encyclopedia that he had envisioned. He subsequently edited the twelve volume work himself.   
  • Jacques Singer, born in Poland, who came to America in 1921, settling in Jersey City. He, like his father, was a symphony conductor.  His wife Leslie was a concert pianist.  His children Lori and Marc became well-known actors. 
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer, born near Warsaw in Poland, who came to New York in 1935 as the Nazi threat was rising.  His Yiddish stories in the Jewish Daily Forward earned him a devoted readership.  
  • and Rabbi Joseph Singer, from Pilzno in Poland, who fled the Nazi threat in 1939 and brought his Hasidic Judaism to New York.

Canada.  Abraham and Bella Singer were Jewish immigrants from Poland who came to Calgary in the early 1900’s. Their son Jack Singer, the third of four children, grew rich in commercial real estate. He ended up owning a Hollywood movie studio and hobnobbing with the entertainment industry elite there.

Singer Surname Miscellany

Singers and Sangers Today

Numbers (000’s) Singer Sanger Total
UK    3    2    5
America   10    2   12
Elsewhere    3    3
Total   16    4   20

George Singer’s Birthplace.  At the time George Singer was born, on January 26 1847, George’s parents, George and Helen, lived in what is now the Old Manor House on the Kingston Maurward Estate in the parish of Stinsford near Dorchester in Dorset.  George senior was a farm manager on the estate. The house was divided to provide accommodation for a number of estate workers and their families.

Guided visits to the Manor House will be a major part of the George Singer Day at Kingston Maurward on September 13, 2013. A plaque will be unveiled by the gateway to the house to commemorate the occasion.  The annual Singer car weekend in the Dorchester area will be held at that time.

The Sangers of Sherborn, Massachusetts.  The Sangers were among the most prominent families in Sherborn’s history. Richard and Nathaniel Sanger had arrived in Sherborn in 1689 and established a blacksmithing business there.

The next Richard of the family grew wealthy from trade and real estate investment.  He was one of three men in Sherborn known to keep slaves. His home, built in 1734 on 60 Washington Street, is still standing.  In addition he kept a tavern in the town.

His grandson Colonel Calvin Sanger was a lawyer, politician, store owner, cotton mill partner, and real estate tycoon.  He purchased a township in Maine and established a saw and grist mill there. This town was later incorporated as Sangerville. 

Michael Singer in Pennsylvania.  Michael Singer was a young man when his father and the rest of his family were killed by Indians at the time of the Revolutionary War. He was serving as a captain in the 4th Battalion from Dauphin county at that time.

After his marriage, he moved into an area now called Lebanon County.  For a number of years they lived in a large stone house near Harrisburg and owned a distillery in the area.

Michael in fact was a man of many talents. He was an outstanding mathematician, well versed in astronomy, and was also a surveyor, serving as County Surveyor.  He drew up plans and helped in construction of large mills and frequently prepared the calculations for the almanacs.  Much of this information was learned from the diaries that he kept. These diaries were written in German in a most elegant style of penmanship.

Isaac Singer’s Erratic Home Life.  After Isaac Singer’s success with his sewing machine in 1851, he went to live in a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City with his so-called “wife” at that time Mary Ann Sponsler and their children. He finally got a divorce from his first wife Catharine in 1860, having the effrontery to accuse her of adultery.

But all was not as it seemed. Isaac Singer was leading a double or, in fact, a triple life.  Singer had a “third” family with Mary Eastwood Walters who bore him a daughter, Alice Eastwood.  And Singer also had a “fourth” family with Mary McGonigal, an employee at his company’s factory.  She had already borne Singer five children and had set up a household with him as the Matthews family.  One day Mary Ann Sponsler saw her husband driving in a carriage with Mary openly. This embarrassment was too much for her and Sponsler had Singer arrested for bigamy.  He was released on bail.  However, his reputation was ruined.

In 1862 Singer and Mary McGonigal sailed for Europe where Singer would remain for the rest of his life.  A year later he married his fifth “wife” Isabella Boyer, a French model who was just twenty two.  By his five “wives,” Singer fathered 24 children, of whom two died young.  When he died in 1875, he acknowledged 22 children in his will.

Winnaretta Singer, the twentieth of these children, eventually became the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune.  An elder sibling Adam became part of the English landed gentry set. A younger brother Paris, who had a child by the dancer Isadora Duncan, was one of the architects and financiers of the Palm Beach resort in Florida.

The Demise of the Singer Company.  In 1989, the Singer Company, then a shadow of its former self, was purchased by James Ting, a Chinese-Canadian businessman born in Canton but educated in Australia.  He said he understood the continuing value of the Singer brand around the world.

“There’s magic in the name,” he told Newsweek.  “It’s well-known from the jungles of Africa to Latin America, Europe, all over the world. You couldn’t buy a better brand.”

Ting managed to convince banks in the US, Canada and Hong Kong to lend him hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize the company and the brand. Instead he set up an elaborate network of companies through which he defrauded the banks and the company before disappearing in China in 2000.

Three years later he surrendered to Hong Kong authorities and, in a scandal which was known as the “Hong Kong Enron,” was tried, convicted and sentenced to two consecutive six year terms.

Rabbi Joseph Singer’s Return to Pilzno.  Joseph Singer had fled his home in Poland in 1939 as the Nazis were preparing their invasion.  He brought his particular brand of Hasidic Judaism to the streets of New York and to the Stanton Street Synagogue.  Almost sixty years later, an old man now, he returned to Pilzno in 1996.  The occasion was a groundbreaking ceremony for the gate around the Jewish cemetery in the town where his father, who had served as the Rav of Pilzno from 1898 to 1914, and his grandparents had been buried.

The journey for Rabbi Joseph and his entourage was very important.  As David Singer explained:

“For our children this is a very important pilgrimage.  They know that our roots, the beginnings of our Hasidic religion, are to be found in Galicia.  Here are the graves of famous tsadikim, here are the graves of our forefathers.  This pilgrimage will help them better understand their history and religion.”

When they entered the ohel, with its plaque announcing that there lay Solomon and Nathan, tsadikim and ancestors of the Bobower rebbe, their spiritual leader in Brooklyn, the pilgrims were deeply moved.

Singer Names

  • Isaac Singer was the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company in 1851. 
  • George Singer was a 19th century cycle manufacturer who was a pioneer of both cycle and motor car development in England. 
  • Isidore Singer was the founder and editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer was the Polish-born Yiddish writer in America awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. 
  • Frederick Sanger is a British biochemist who was twice awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Singer Numbers Today

  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Somerset)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Singer and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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